Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses

by Jussi Parikka
Peter Lang, New York, 2007
327 pp., illus. Trade, $99.95; paper, $35.95
ISBN 978-1-4331-0093-2; ISBN: 978-0-8204-8837-0.

Reviewed by Anthony Enns
Department of English
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


In his introduction to Digital Contagions Jussi Parikka argues that the history of computer viruses offers new insights into the role that accidents play in modern culture. Parikka claims that accidents should not be seen as the result of technological malfunctions, but rather they are part of “the ‘normal’ functioning of a technological machine” (p. 5). Computer viruses thus reveal not only the heightened degree of risk that is symptomatic of high-tech societies, but also the ways in which accidents are useful and perhaps even necessary components of technological machines. One of the principle aims of this book, therefore, is “to emphasize the affirmative perspective we can take on accidents, events, and hence viruses by considering them as events that are overflowing their rigid territorializations” (p. 5). Rather than seeing viruses as “malicious software made by juvenile vandals,” in other words, Parikka argues that they are “an inherent part of digital culture” (p. 23).

The book is divided into three chapters, the first of which focuses on the issue of risk and security. Parikka argues that the computer industry depicts computer viruses in a negative light in order to regulate and control consumer behavior. By examining how the emergence of new viruses required the sustained development of new anti-virus software, however, Parikka shows that viruses actually help rather than hinder the computer industry. Parikka thus concludes that “[d]igital capitalist culture…succeeded in converting its own accidents to its own profit” (p. 100), and he even suggests that capitalism itself functions as a virus that is similarly “capable of continuous modulation and heterogenesis” (p. 96).

In the second chapter Parikka analyzes the cultural discourse surrounding the rise of computer viruses in the 1980s, and he argues that the sudden increase in public concern over viruses was closely related to the AIDS crisis. The computer industry introduced concepts like “safe hex,” “responsibility in use,” and “digital hygiene,” for example, in order to encourage “natural” and “healthy” methods of computing, which implied that computer viruses were spread by unsafe practices or degenerate hackers. By associating computer viruses with the AIDS virus, in other words, digital networks were frequently described using biological and ecological metaphors: “Bodies and diseases were not just entities of the biological sphere but taken in their diagrammatic dimensions as notions that span the whole social field…. This provided elements for a media ecology that essentially relies on a certain metaphoric and metamorphotic basis deterritorialized by biology and ecology” (p. 204).

In the third and final chapter Parikka complicates this metaphorical use of biological and ecological terminology by arguing that computer viruses can also be understood as living entities. Parikka begins by noting that it is often difficult to distinguish between so-called “useful” software and viral “maleware,” as many viruses also serve benevolent functions. Moreover, viruses are not anomalies within the system, but rather they “express its very defining modes of operating” (p. 215). Because these semi-autonomous programs are built into the very structure of digital networks, and they are fundamentally necessary for the functioning of these networks, Parikka argues that they represent autopoietic systems: “[T]he perspective of ecologies should be understood as self-referential systems or processes, where to understand (or observe) the function of the system, one cannot detach single elements from its synthetic consistency (and label some elements as purely anomalous) . . . . [A] focus on such a systems approach allows one to think also of digital culture as couplings where ‘organisms’ or ‘components’ participate in the autopoiesis of the general system” (p. 259). Parikka then draws several connections between second-order cybernetics and Deleuzian-Spinozan philosophy in order to show how biological and computer viruses both illustrate the ways in which bodies and environments “resonate together” and “infect each other” (p. 270). Rather than understanding terms like “computer virus” and “media ecology” as metaphors, therefore, Parikka concludes that biological and ecological concepts can be applied to both natural and technological systems.

Parikka’s project is largely informed by German media theory, particularly the work of Friedrich Kittler, which has often been criticized by Anglo-American media theorists for promoting a kind of technological determinism that grants undue power to machines. Parikka’s materialist approach is certainly vulnerable to similar accusations; indeed, the very notion of computer viruses as living agents or actors clearly endows the apparatus with a degree of power that some critics may find disturbing. While Parikka briefly mentions that computer viruses represent an example of “bottom-up emergence” (p. 3), he seems to employ this term in a biological or perhaps even evolutionary sense, and he explicitly rejects the notion that viruses might represent the resistant logic of hackers attempting to subvert or appropriate corporate technologies. Parikka’s discussion of “viral capitalism” seems to pose a similar problem, as it implies that capitalism might also be understood as a living and potentially even benevolent entity. Nevertheless, Parikka’s argument is extremely persuasive, and it poses a serious challenge to critics who prefer to think of computer networks as potential instruments for promoting digital democracy. Parikka brilliantly weaves together historical research and poststructural theory in order to explore the nature of digital computer networks and expand the field of media ecology.

Last Updated 1 August, 2009

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo:isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST